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Published On: Mon, Dec 15th, 2014

Innovation key to agriculture advancement

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The efficiency of food production didn’t change much from biblical times to 1830.

“Growing 100 bushels of wheat in 1830 required five acres of land and 300 man hours of labour, same as in biblical times,” says Howard Dahl, president of Amity Technology, which specializes in leading edge agricultural equipment.

He is best know n on the Prairies as the man who founded the Concord air drill company. At various times during his entrepreneurial career, he has owned and managed Bobcat, Steiger Tractor, Concord and now Amity Technology.

Dahl was in Winnipeg Nov. 18 as keynote speaker at the Agri-Innovation Forum, which brings together potential investment partners and agricultural innovators who need venture capital.

Dahl said that each technological step in farming allowed the human population to expand.

Mechanization crept into most aspects of farming between 1830 and 1890. The crude seed drills and combines of 1890 were powered either by horses or steam, but efficiency was vastly improved compared to 1830. Growing 100 bu. of wheat on five acres now required only 50 man hours.

Efficiency had not increased appreciably by the time of the Great  Depression in the 1930s. It still took 20 man hours to grow 100 bu. Of wheat on five acres. The big jump in crop production efficiency happened in the 1970s, when the production of 100 bu. of wheat required only four man hours and three acres. Bigger and better equipment, crop protection chemicals and increased fertilizer use contributed to the increase.

Technological advances are now arriving at a blistering pace. Growing 100 bu. of wheat requires just 30 minutes of manpower and 1.5 acres of land.

Dahl said this 100 bu. of wheat timeline matters because investment in agricultural technology is investment in the future of the human race. Earlier projections said the human race would peak at six billion people by 2040, but that figure was recently updated to nine billion people by 2040.

Where will the food come from to feed so many people, especially considering that humanity cannot find a way to feed its current population?

He said millions of acres have yet to be developed in South America, Russia, China and Africa, and the in-creased population will survive and thrive if venture capital and innovative agricultural equipment are applied to this challenge.

However, the planet will have a serious crisis on its hands if the venture capital and agricultural inventions don’t materialize.

Dahl said the Canadian prairie provinces and northern Great Plains states experienced the same thing on a much smaller scale 40 years ago.

“Historically, we’ve seen little or no agricultural innovation when times are good,” he said.

“ Innovation comes with necessity, when we’re forced to improve.”

Dahl said the Concord air drill gained popularity in the early days of the zero-till movement.

“The zero-till movement is a good example of necessity. We were in a long dry spell in the 1970s and nobody had any idea when it would end. Right around 1980, a small group of forward thinking farmers got together and formed the Manitoba North Dakota Zero Tillage Farmers Association.”

He said the farmer-led movement quickly fostered research and innovation at universities, chemical and implement companies, government departments and farmyards. “These were the early pioneers in a time of need,” he said. “Some had an emotional attachment to the concept of taking care of Mother Earth. Others simply saw the economic advantage of better utilization of moisture and fertilizer.”

Dahl said precision farming is the next frontier in agriculture, and the smart research and development money is focused on advanced anticipation of crop conditions before the moment of treatment. “It’s called preventive maintenance and it’s attracting venture investment,” he said.

“Early detection of a plant disease, insect infestation, weed invasion or other problem will happen long in advance so farmers can address the problem before it develops.

Also, there’s investment going into variable seed research. Seed  varieties can be changed on-the-go according to conditions in different parts of the field. All of these factors will work together

to allow farmers to be more profitable.”

He said this is where venture capital in agriculture is headed. Dahl said he grew up in a privileged setting, not because of the family’s financial position but in terms of expectations.

His grandfather’s last name was Melroe and his claim to fame is the Melroe skid steer loader, which was named Bobcat. “In our household, we were constantly surrounded by new ideas and new technology all the time. And we were all part of those discussions,”

he said. “I recall that even when he was on his deathbed, my father’s mind was

still pushing for new ideas. Two weeks before he died, I remember walking into the room and he asked, ‘what are you doing that’s interesting? What new products are you working on?’ That’s just the  way he was.”


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